A humpback whale caught in commercial crab gear and weather buoy mooring was distressed when a Cascadia Research Collective crew spotted the animal off the California coast, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.
The crew reported the adult humpback to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration around 5 p.m. on July 9, saying the whale was about 40 miles off Point Reyes in Northern California and “was in poor condition with multiple lines wrapped around the whale and the weather buoy mooring,” the Coast Guard said in a news release Thursday.
That launched a rescue effort that included the Coast Guard, the NOAA’s Fisheries’ Large Whale Entanglement Response Team, the Cascadia Research Collective crew and the Marine Mammal Center — and, working together, the team successfully freed the trapped animal on July 10.
Officials from the Coast Guard Sector San Francisco sent a 47-foot motor lifeboat from their Golden Gate station, which carried NOAA and Marine Mammal Center crew members planning to aid the whale, according to the Coast Guard.
After working for hours to liberate the whale from the mooring and crab gear, the animal was cut loose and swam off.
The Coast Guard said NOAA is investigating the entanglement and encouraged the public to report entangled whales spotted in the wild by calling 1-877-SOS-WHALE (767-9425).
“This entangled whale was very far offshore and provided many challenges to the team,” said Justin Viezbicke, NOAA Fisheries’ Marine Mammal stranding coordinator, according to the Coast Guard. “We simply could not have freed this whale if it hadn’t been for the Coast Guard’s assistance in providing long-range transportation and the trained volunteers who dropped everything to respond to this event.”
Photos released by NOAA and the Coast Guard earlier this month show the entanglement responders removing the buoy anchoring line from the large marine mammal.
According to NOAA Fisheries, whales that get entangled in active or cast-off fishing gear “may be unable to shed the gear and can carry it for days, months, or even years” afterward — and getting entangled in gear at all can result in “injuries, infection, and wrapping that can impair their ability to feed or swim.”
A report on entanglements last year found that larger gray and humpback whale populations, fluctuating ocean and food conditions, and late crab seasons have resulted in a growing number of whales getting caught in the human gear off the West Coast of the U.S., including 31 confirmed cases in 2017 alone, according to NOAA Fisheries.